By Enrica Barberis
Alex feels nervous while walking to school on Monday morning but she doesn’t know why. She talks to her friends about it over a study break and they try to reassure her: “It’s probably just stress.” When she goes home that night she struggles to fall asleep because she keeps going over tomorrow’s schedule in her head. The next day she can’t get out of bed. She feels like hiding under the covers all day so she sends an email to her professor saying she is sick. When she reaches out to her parents about it they say to her: “Don’t worry honey, it’s normal to get stressed around midterms week. It will pass.” Alex is not stressed. She suffers from anxiety.
According to a survey from the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA), universities and colleges have seen an increase in students seeking services for anxiety disorders. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 75 percent of all individuals with an anxiety disorder will experience symptoms before age 22. Yet, this disorder is still grossly misinterpreted and, for the most part, surrounded by paralyzing stigma. One of the main reasons anxiety is so problematic is that, to an untrained eye, it can easily be mistaken for stress.
We all experience stress. Stress is a natural physiological response to a perceived threat, or stressor. It is what we sometimes refer to as the “flight-or- flight” response. Yes, stress can be challenging: things don’t always go as planned, bad grades happen, and missing the bus on your way to an important meeting is bound to raise your cortisol levels. However, that is not anxiety. Anxiety is stress that continues after the stressor disappears. Anxiety is your body reacting as if there was a stressor when there isn’t one. Anxiety is being constantly scared, it is missing out on events, having to talk to yourself and calm yourself down every second of your day, overthinking the simplest task or overcomplicating the simplest thoughts. Anxiety is a constant struggle.
“Come on, it’s a simple: be more joyful,” “Why don’t you ever come out? You are such a nonno/a.” The stigma surrounding this mental disorder is the reason why many people who su er from it feel they have to hide it. On the surface, most people with anxiety are “high-functioning” and look perfectly ne. In many cases their achievement, busyness, perfectionism, and forced smiles hide some real pain. It is extremely di cult for a “high-functioning” person with anxiety to admit to su ering from a mental illness because it is likely that they worked very hard their whole lives to build that facade of normalcy. If they nally do ask for help and are met with rejection, judgment, lack of understanding and empathy, it can be devastating.
The rst step needed in order to break the stigma is to talk about it. So, here I am, loud and proud: I su er from anxiety. Yes. As I type I am terri ed about what you are going to think of me when you read this article. I fear you may laugh, roll your eyes, and declare me to be pesante. But chances are that you too su er from anxiety and feel lonely in this struggle, and maybe you will nd relief in my coming out. Or maybe you do not suffer from anxiety but you know somebody who does, and maybe you will learn something from my sharing this experience.
People have an impression of me based on the pictures I post on my social media, where it looks like I am always having fun. They see me through the lens of my success: Chief Editor of the university newspaper and winner of a prestigious writing contest; but, what people do not see is how many times I cry every day, how many times I feel like a failure in what I do, how many times I get scared about the smallest everyday things.
If you don’t know what anxiety feels like, I will tell you. It feels like “not enough.” It is a voice in your head that says: you’re not good enough. You’re a bad friend. You’re not good at your job. You’re wasting time. You’re a waste of time. Your boyfriend doesn’t love you. You’re so needy. What are you doing with yourself? Why would you say that? What if they hate it? Why can’t you have your shit together? You’re going to get anxious and because you’re going to get anxious, you’re going to mess everything up. You’re a fraud. You’re letting everybody down. No one likes you. It feels like losing all your friends, like the world is crashing down around you as you are dancing alone in your room in a meticulously rehearsed routine of desperation. So, when someone opens about their anxiety, don’t respond “I’m stressed too.” Listen.
If you struggle with anxiety and you feel like you are not being taken seriously, my advice to you is to trust yourself. My mantra is: conquer yourself, not the world. You know yourself so much more than anybody else can. Nobody has the right to undermine your di culties. Keep looking for the person who listens to you and takes your feelings into account. There are others out there who feel the same way. You are not alone. Always remember that. There is professional help: I got it. Your feelings matter and are valid. If you feel like there’s something wrong, talk to a counselor and nd out what is not ok. You deserve to be ok.
And cry if you feel like it. Cry a lot. It is ‘perfectly’ fine.